Hello everyone, and welcome to a whopper of a bonus post.
As you may know if you’ve been here a while, my other, non-blogger life is (mostly) as an editor. I work freelance right now, so I work on a lot of different kinds of projects. But my favourites, so far, are the work I do with Fiction & Feeling. And the most recent of those projects is a book of creative non-fiction pieces about rituals and resistance. (You can read more about it on the Kickstarter page.)
I wrote my own response to this book to try to articulate what it meant to me to work on, and why you should pre-order it now, seriously, it’s the last day you may be able to buy it. It’s kind of a book review by writing back, so I thought it might belong here. And I figured you might forgive me for the self-promo if it came in a bonus post. So.
These days, I feel I’m made for what it is I do: editing, reading, reviewing voraciously. The only difficulty of it is that sometimes, when I read something that hits me in the chest somewhere I almost don’t remember (or I read something so unfailingly bad that I can’t help but scoff, “I could do so much better”), I want to write. And it’s been a long time since I’ve thought of myself as a writer.
I used to have rituals. As a pre-teen in middle school, I had my coven, The Freaks (a name we reclaimed from the jocks who bestowed it upon us). We gave each other our elements to call. Mine was air, which is just inaccurate, but I didn’t understand astrology yet. In those moments, casting the circle with my friends, I felt that thing outside myself that I was sure was a personal connection to magic.
One day, one of my coven and I were called to the office of our Catholic school for reading a book about witchcraft on the premises. I remember banging my head, in real life, against the wall, because a grown man was asking me if I was “impaling cats” and “selling their drugs,” like I’d walked straight out of a Jack Chick tract. It was the first and only time I can remember a school administrator reporting me to my mother. She laughed: I was, after all, a twelve-year-old straight-A band geek they’d just pulled from enrichment class. I had borrowed the book from our neighbour, her aunt.
That incident didn’t quash a life of witchcraft, but that connection to magic I felt casting spells to find quarters on the sidewalk wasn’t about my rituals of prosperity, actually. I can’t remember if I made even a kid amount of money. What I do remember are the movement of a best friend’s hands when she was describing the way she felt trying to summon earth’s spirit. What I do know, now, is that I’m a Scorpio with a Cancer ascendant, and I feel too much and wear my heart on my sleeve more than it seems, and what made these rituals special were the small ways I did and could share them with the little family I loved, and what took them away was getting my heart broken.
That wasn’t entirely about the breaking up of our coven, though of course, middle school friends from small places often drift different ways, and that kind of change is a tough sell to live with, even if they find each other again. It was about the kind of love I attracted after that, and that had everything to do with my own intentions.
Depression is an asshole. We all know that. And yeah, “we accept the love we think we deserve” is something out of a pretentious epistolary novel, but it’s also true. I’ve spent a lot of my life after those moments with my coven loving myself only through the good that someone else saw in me, giving them everything for it; I’ve spent a pitifully small amount of time making sure I had the respect and care I deserved.
I’m not just talking about romantic relationships. I made more witchy friends later on, and it was those break-ups that left me more or less spiritually bankrupt. I came off a bestie split with my fellow astrologer-in-training where I’d gotten torn up and summarily catfished into another, where I failed to reach my empathic rune-reader in an abusive relationship and spent years hating myself over it. After that, I started going out with a vocal atheist.
Now, after months leafing through rituals and thinking about witchcraft, it’s easy to imagine that a part of me has been missing. But I also can’t help but blame myself: I allowed my self-doubt to spiral when I let the pain of these break-ups overshadow my needs and interests, when I let someone threaten to empty the meaning from the rituals I’d created. In this, like many other things, I failed to stand up for myself.
My other lost ritual, the one most fundamental to who I used to think I was, is writing. I always wrote like one of those inspiration-strikes stereotypes: rolling over in the middle of the night, scrawling words in the dark, struggling to comprehend myself in the morning but untangling, considering, refining. (Maybe that part, actually, is the editor in me.) For me, the seeds were something I couldn’t really imagine having put in the ground, but I watered, nurtured, shielded them from the elements. Writing began as something that wasn’t a conscious effort. And I know now, and learned then—even before I made it my work for years—that writing is work, that it takes practice and time set aside, that sometimes you just have to churn it out and pray you can make something not-garbage out of it. That’s something I learned to do, too. But my drive for it was situated in that urge, that half-conscious or sudden fleeting moment when the words would begin to compose themselves in my head, when I’d realize I was writing, when I’d frantically rewind in my mind, repeat, restructure, write it down, begin again. My brain was on writing. It was the way I was made.
And I made it my job as an academic in creative writing and English lit. And the thing is, even though it was work and it was hard and I complained like anyone, that feeling still made it such a part of my nervous system that I would never stop. I wanted to keep doing it, and do it in different ways: new genres, new venues, harder, better, faster, stronger. What happened then was that I managed to cross over my piss-poor relationship luck into my professional life: I worked with a faux-feminist fascist shitbag man and then a verbally abusive, condescending elitist petty trash-human in sequence. One of them gave me a rage eye-twitch. The other treated the space between us like a warzone, even in public.
This was my doctoral education. By the end, the notion of writing another page or giving a reading made me want to fist-fight someone or throw up. Despite every effort I’d put into advancing that career, despite every little thing I did and did well and did weeks ahead of time while juggling several jobs, I had to stand up for myself somehow. I quit.
And the idea of writing, thereafter, felt like banging a sleeping limb against the wall to wake it up. And every time I went to a poetry reading and loved a line, or actually thought a metaphor was so atrocious I wanted to cackle, I felt a wrenching pain in my gut like the food poisoning I worked straight through while I was in grad school. It was over: where once writing was a feature of my body, that urge was now a bug.
I used to write songs, too. Sometimes, I still do. When I was in high school, I played those songs to my coven. As I got older, I became more and more reticent about who I played to. My songs were more personal than my spells, more obvious than any words I put to paper. I was trying to pull a windbreaker over a bleeding, shredded sleeve-heart. I’m still not sure that has actually ever worked.
My songwriting has slowed, fizzled. When all you are ever live for is the kind of love you can’t describe because the word love has become entirely tired, inutterably inane, when you are constantly inundated with the pointlessness of living and getting up but all you live for is to exist for those people for whom you’d bury a body, then yeah. Rituals, even those you initiate alone, are not improved when never shared.
Once, I wrote a song about an ex that I cried writing, that I cried playing, every time. I cried for years putting my fingers in the form of those chords until the day I didn’t. It was my ritual: a way to mourn a tragic love, the kind of partner and best friend who was the best and the worst for me, who I was the best and the worst for. That song made me realize what songwriting was to me, the way it emptied what might be churning inside without my knowing. It made me realize that I could play anything until the day I’d start laughing.
Lately, my rituals are simple: I wrap myself so thoroughly around something I’m obsessed with that I make it my reason for being. This also isn’t foreign to my past self: I grew up in fandoms. But now there are no spells, no words, and little music; I make nothing outside myself. I chew up what it is I need to live. I consume.
Somewhere halfway through revising pieces for Becoming Dangerous, I had that feeling I get, that unspent urge: these words, these rituals were hitting me in the heart, and I wanted to write. (I also wanted, want, to do magic.) I didn’t need to write about my rituals to do that, I know, but thinking that I couldn’t made me doubt myself. These lost things, I think, were rituals, were real. When I regurgitated pain as art, my love for my friends as magic, I created things outside of myself. I took that vulnerability and threw it back into the world times three and told it I was indestructible, that nothing could ever crush me. My heart was a scythe to reap fields of rot, a spade to dig the holes; I would grow again to love as sharp as any sword.
But eventually, I did feel crushed. Done. An endless loop on pause. I feel guilty for not being that girl I was. And I don’t know what my rituals now mean, other than my survival. I don’t know how any of this might make me dangerous.
It’s difficult to feel like you’re a sharp edge against the throat of the world when you live with depression. It’s difficult to excavate the parts of yourself that you lost to relationships that were or turned toxic. For most of the years of my life I can remember, I’ve woken up on many days feeling like the act of doing so was pointless, that I am completely powerless. I have better coping mechanisms for that now that I’m thirty than I did when I was twelve; I have better relationships than I had two, five, ten years ago, but I still struggle: to have any social energy, to reach out to other people, to take care of myself when there’s work to be done, to set healthy boundaries.
But sometimes being dangerous isn’t just the affirmative idea that you can create and destroy, that you are a god in the world or even in a world of your own. I hope you can be, and I know that I have more control than my depression likes to indicate, but I don’t really feel like the god of mine most of the time. Sometimes, though, surviving is a mountain you climbed, and so is living to tell the tale, and crying and crying and crying until you’re not crying about it anymore. Until you trace those familiar lines with your fingertips and laugh.
Until you’re still here, and you’ve written all of these words down. You’re writing them. Until you realize this was it, the ritual, and your eyes well. Because you can feel this in that missing place in your chest and it aches but the pain is still something you can cast outside of yourself, a spell that makes you indestructible. So maybe, with this book to guide me home to it, I can be dangerous, too.
You have today to pre-order this amazing book I’m talking about from Fiction & Feeling. And you probably should.